Requiem of the Leaf
Pairing(s): NONE! Hehe. Well, Sakura + Sasuke + Naruto, if you squint?
Warning(s): gen fic. Mission. Self-edit 'cause I'm late.
Genre(s): ...fantasy...? Whatever Naruto normally is.
Rating: Pg-13 for...blood?
Word Length: 7859-ish. (read: 20-some pages)
Summary: Sasuke, Sakura and Naruto are sentenced to an unusual sort of community service when they carelessly complete a mission.
was fun to write, after I got it started. It's only been
self-edited, though (i.e., beware of comma splices and such...I'm
more of a content person, myself). I hope you like the generalness of
of the Leaf
The morning was soft and sweet.
Silent wind picked up the ends of hair and brushed it across smooth faces. Similarly, the bright sun caught up reflective metals all around and strewed their images like so much water.
Glittering sheets of steel were intended to mark the children as adults, but on small heads they seemed glaringly out of place.
The wind bent upwards, as if in pause before swooping down on its intended prey.
Eagerly waiting for the bright-eyed, bright-haired young boy to reach the peak of the hill, the sun seemed to smile.
The wind swooped downwards, intent on the self-same boy and his childish words.
"—fly" some words were swallowed by the mischievous wind, but the tune was carried on boisterous lungs. "...bother me!"
The sun seemed to chuckle at the scene, and the wind—full of words and content with them—eased up.
Sakura winced at the slightly sharp noise, and wished to herself, Naruto, shut up!
As the blond haired boy came onto the same plane, his childish voice boomed all the louder in her sensitive ears. "Shoo fly, don't bother me!"
More like don't bother me, stupid boy! Sakura raged silently beneath pouting lips.
Naruto's rendition of the children's song left much to be desired, certainly, as he rounded on the third refrain, stumbling into the coda with the grace of a bullfrog. "Shoo fly, don't bother me, for I belong to somebody!" Naruto laughed cheerfully.
Sakura sighed. "Naruto," she called, "don't you think we ought to wait quietly for Kakashi—?" The girl's tentative suggestion was drowned out by the continuation of the song.
"I feel, I feel, I feel," Naruto chirped.
Sasuke, leaning heavily against a tree still barren of spring leaves, scowled into his collar. His irritation was lost on the other boy.
Naruto, feeling as though he'd warmed up enough, grinned and roared, "I feel like a morning star," with a laugh.
Sasuke pulled himself up and rolled his shoulders.
Naruto opened his arms wide, as though to petition Sakura for a bear-hug. "I feel, I feel, I—ow!" Naruto snapped his mouth shut and whirled around to face the unforeseen antagonist.
Sasuke stood, smirking. In his left hand, he dangled Naruto's forehead protector. "Something the matter, you dead last idiot?"
"Heeeeey!" Naruto protested. He leaped forward, arms flailing wildly as he screwed up his face in imitation of a scowl. "G'me that back, you weirdo!" The growling, high-pitched boy lunged at Sasuke.
Sasuke, smirking then, tossed the blue-and-silver band from one hand to the next, all the while stepping just out of Naruto's reach. "Come on," he challenged, and in his smile there was a hint of malice.
"Sasuke—!" Naruto drew his arm back, thinking to punch the arrogant boy for his trouble.
"Naruto!" Sakura called. "You shouldn't have been so annoying, and Sasuke just quit before Kakashi gets here—" her voice spiraled upwards in near panic, images of the lightning-blue chidori against Naruto's swirling white flared in her mind.
Sakura squinted—eyes near shut—and she extended one long, slender-fingered hand as though to touch them.
"Don't worry." the words were small in her ears, and an unnamed ache began to fill her heart.
Naruto's wordless threat was canceled in a flash, however, with the appearance of the tall jounin. Kakashi effortlessly suspended Sasuke in the air with his right arm while he pushed Naruto back with one foot. "Naruto." Kakashi looked lazily from the blond to the ebony-haired boy. In the man's left hand, Naruto's headband dangled.
"Hmph." Naruto grumbled. He stuck his tongue out at Sasuke. "Jackass," the boy muttered, reaching for his well-earned headband.
"Listen up," Kakashi breathed. His voice seemed as quiet as the wind, and an air of heaviness hung unexpectedly about the man. "Our mission today is relatively simple," he informed his genin team, "but of great significance."
Sasuke flipped out of his teacher's grip, landing with a quiet ta tnnn and a disgruntled frown. "Of course," he murmured, sarcasm thick in his voice, "are not all the village's missions of" he paused "dire importance?"
Kakashi chose to ignore the highly acclaimed boy. "You three are to collect sap from a particular breed of sansai," a mountain plant, "called suzu" bell "by the villagers," Kakashi informed them. "You have three hours to accomplish your mission."
Sasuke scoffed. "Another bell trial?" his amusement was not shared by the others.
Shifting quietly behind the boys, Sakura cleared her throat. "Kakashi-sensei," she began, "why isn't this plant in Konoha? Surely the medical-nin have come up with ways to emulate mountainous terrain—"
Naruto blinked. "Huh?"
Sasuke smirked, and drew a symbol in the air. Three strokes.
Mountain, Naruto read, he nodded, thinking, I got that part, bastard... The second kanji wasn't what he expected, so it took some thinking for the boy to understand it. Soil? Huh? Mountain dirt? Waitasecond...I'm confused...
Sakura and Kakashi had meanwhile moved on to another aspect of their mission. "—gather information about the environment and such, see if you can obtain a pure sample, yes?"
"So." Sasuke averted his gaze. "We're to collect flowers, hmm?"
Naruto grumbled. "No. One flower. The rest we need is sap," he smiled triumphantly.
Kakashi thrust a small bottle into the blond boy's hand, a careful grin hidden behind his black mask. "Enough to fill that, all right?"
Naruto saluted his teacher, forgetting momentarily that he still grasped the metal band Sasuke had stolen earlier. The resounding pnnmm of metal on his forehead startled the boy more than the pain did. Absently, he rubbed his still-humming head.
Kakashi chuckled quietly.
Naruto, dizzy, mumbled, "Ahhh, thanks for the...uh..." he paused, "can do..." fidgeted, "yeah."
The trio started out again, under the watch of an amused teacher and an indifferent sun.
The cold and damp air surrounded them.
the trees were
and the light,
Thick underbrush made their task difficult, disguising the winding plants that should have been growing peacefully in the rocky terrain. However, a leaf could be surrounded by pebbles, thorns, branches or a combination of all of those, the children were quick to realize...there was not a 'pure sample' to be found.
The slope of the mountain was steeper than the tallest hill Naruto'd climbed, but he hummed quietly to himself. Full of energy at first, yet even he felt his determination wane as the minutes ticked by.
Naruto's small hands ran over delicate leaves inquisitively, using the tender part of his palm to sense what his callused fingers had lost. He searched—unlike Sasuke with his special eyes, or Sakura with her keen observation skills—with his hands. He thought he would know the forgotten sense of soft petals and slender vines faster that way, when all the smells of the shadowy place blurred together.
The mist began to set in.
To Sasuke, the noise the blond insisted on making were like tiny drops of rain. Incessant, eerie, and cold. With each meandering wisp of melody, he felt his hands tremble, and his eyes flicker closed.
He brushed the emotions aside, disregarding the floating memory of black eyes, long hair and a sweet mouth open in song. He tried to forget the lulled feeling of content—in Mother's arms—and peace.
as he did so, Sasuke felt his hands clench into fists. He felt his blood surge behind his eyes and down his neck, making him dizzy with exhilaration.
You should concentrate on the mission. Kakashi's words were clear in his memory, and the thought of Naruto presiding over—another—victory appalled him.
He focused on finding the so-called bell.
Around them, the fog deepened. The blue light turned gray, and the scant trees around them grew darker.
Sakura found her nerves frazzled quickly, between her crush's unpredictable behavior and Naruto's creepy song. Long fingers brushed absently at pink hair. Her cheeks were flushed, her lips pressed thin, and her eyes narrow.
Time is running out. She thought she saw
small flower-cup of blue and green—that plant—but closer observation proved her wrong again. Frustrated, but not discouraged, the girl shot a glance at her teammates.
"Sasuke-kun? Naruto?" she called, just loud enough to hear. "We should try another spot—" She turned to see the two better, intent on glimpsing Sasuke's coal black hair. Much to her disappointment, the acclaimed
had disappeared from her oh-so-sharp sight.
Sakura let out a small gasp, and it seemed as though a wash of mist swallowed her up. The greens and the grays became a wash of muted brown. Even Sakura's pale, soft skin was lost on lesser eyes.
"Sakura-chan?" Naruto yelped, hands reaching out to find his lost comrade. "Sasuke!"
There was silence.
"Quiet!" a voice hissed through the thickening cloud. "Come with me."
Naruto wondered, silent in his head, what made Sasuke lower his voice and take to the trees' slender branches.
"I found a place,"
Sasuke's disembodied voice shook Naruto's senses, left him feeling raw and too well used.
"Naruto, are you listening? It
"hold what we're looking for, do you understand me?" the voice was harsh, quick. It folded in and out of the gray, like so much smoke.
Naruto shook his head, forgetting the taller boy couldn't see him.
Sasuke moved swiftly until he was next to the blond. He put one hand on the boy's shoulder—
—Naruto jumped, surprised and unnerved by the chill of Sasuke's flesh—
—without a flinch. "We've only got an hour left," the black-haired boy shoved Naruto forward, "hear me?"
Naruto shook himself. "Stupid Sasuke," he charged, "where'd Sakura-chan go!"
Sasuke snorted with disdain. "She's pushed ahead," he fought the urge to shake the blond idiot, "because unlike you, she knows what'll happen if we
Naruto's hands went numb. He opened his mouth, to no avail. The words were caught in his throat like a small leaf entangled in a spider's web.
"too much time!" Sasuke finished.
Naruto was bustled and pushed along the mountain path, until at last the sky was seen. The brilliant blue had dulled at last to a dismal gray, overcast with a blanket of clouds so deep the sun could not be seen.
Naruto turned to look at Sasuke, but the mist prevented him from seeing clearly the other boy's eyes.
"Naruto!" Sakura called. "Give me the vial, all right?" her voice was muffled.
Naruto paused, squinting at the ground. "Ahh!" he grinned, "it's that flower!"
Sasuke chuckled. "In abundance, nonetheless." The triumphant smirk could be heard in his voice more than it could be seen.
Slowly, Naruto made his way to Sakura, careful not to tread on a single vine. When he reached the girl, she took the glass vial from his cold and sweaty hands and quickly showed him how to extract the sticky sap.
They worked diligently, quickly, true ninja children, until they had all the materials they needed.
Sasuke knew the significance of the straight, even rows on layered, elevated steps, even if his childish companions didn't. He recognized the work of many hands, saw past the rows of the bell and to the rows of white, perfectly shaped roses afterwards. All of it was the work of man, he knew.
They should be pleased, to have served their guardians so, he thought, though he didn't believe it for an instant. In his heart, he didn't care at all for the idiot farmers who couldn't even put up a good fight.
Above them, the sun showed its magnificent face, and it sought once again the gently polished metal on each child's head.
In the distance, the reflection caught the eye of a man, stern, tall and dark. He watched closely, and made note of the children's activities. His heavy feet tread only the turned soil, not the delicate leaves of the plants.
He took himself to the lord, and presented a snitch of the tale.
"Tell me," the lord bade, "Tell me
It rained, and the sky was stained near black in its navy-blue.
Sakura saw it, and smiled to herself. It's like someone plucked Naruto's and Sasuke's eyes, rolled them together, and cast it to the heavens... she thought, dreamily. She pressed her cool hands against her cheeks, and wondered, is there anything that could be a mix of all three of us?
The door opened with a crack. "Sakura!" her mother called. "You're teacher's called—"
Sakura sighed, and interrupted with an irritated scoff, "—instructor Kakashi?"
"—and said that you need to report to the Hokage—"
Sakura's breath caught in her throat. Why?
She flew to the window, and looked out. In the distance, she thought she could see Sasuke's lone form stealing past the gates. She thought she could hear Naruto's shrill voice.
Her mother's footsteps drew closer.
Sakura pursed her lips, threw open the glass and leapt—
—into the rain.
Like the inside of a candle-flame, the room was brightly lit.
Sasuke, Sakura and Naruto stood silently, eyes downcast in front of the Hokage, a trio of anbu and their jounin instructor.
"Explain yourselves." The Hokage's voice was stern, but a hint of a smile twitched at her lips.
Sasuke scoffed lightly. "We did as we were ordered."
One of the anbu coughed.
Sasuke's lips twitched. "Hokage."
Naruto attempted to kick Sasuke's foot, but the other was too quick for him. Consequently, Naruto nearly found himself face first on the floor.
Sakura pulled on Naruto's arm. "Hokage-sama," she began quietly, "we didn't realize—"
Sasuke's face was all too smooth for this to be true.
"—that it was a, a—"
Naruto swallowed. "A flower farm?"
The Hokage laughed aloud. "Children," she smirked wide and long with full lips, "you're very close to giving Konoha a very bad name." The lady chuckled once more. "So you'd better come up with a better excuse than not realizing it was private property!"
Sakura smiled timidly. "Er," she breathed, "we were running short on time—"
Sasuke rolled his eyes. "Tsunade," he coughed, "we did as we saw fit, considering the situation."
The fifth Hokage rolled her eyes right back at the child. "Mmmhmm." She waited.
Neither Sakura nor Naruto disputed the statement.
The leader of Konoha smiled thinly. "Well, kids, you destroyed a good portion of the merchant's goods, you know. Fortunately for you, he isn't demanding a pay-off for the damage," she paused, "he's demanding that you three serve him personally for two days." She sighed. "Moreover, the overseer has threatened our village with higher prices for his goods, and refused our request to receive germinated seeds."
Naruto's expression was filled with confusion.
Tsunade chuckled lightly. "Meaning he won't give it to us. So we may not grow our own 'bell of the mountain.'"
Naruto frowned, his . "But we don't need any more of the stuff, yeah?" The boy fidgeted. "We did our mission, and they're under the Fire Country's protection! Shouldn't we be able to take some medicine stuff when we need it?"
Kakashi cleared his throat. "The mountain villagers, Naruto, have called on ninja protection exactly twice in the last twenty years—and each time was to transport water to their drought plagued plants. They've never seen the need for our services."
Sakura pursed her lips. "...meaning that we couldn't convince them that they're only serving the greater good..." she hazarded.
"Good luck, you three." Tsunade grinned. "I suspect you remember the way to the flower field?"
Sasuke scoffed, and nodded. "Of course, Hokage."
Ignoring his student's rudeness, Kakashi nodded, and the three ninja-children dispersed into the shadows, relieving the Hokage of their presence.
The shadows lengthened, then waned.
The overseer's smile was like a dulled knife.
Once keen, once sharpened to a fine edge, now it was the memory of greatness. The pride that had, at a time, spurned such a smile, had faded to a rotten sense of meanness that self-contempt causes.
"So you're the kids," the man began, "who wrecked our goods, huh?" his laughter filled the closed room from woven tatami mats to smooth paper walls.
Three children knelt in the traditional manner before the man. Whether they were reporting out of loyalty to their village or coercion from angry parents, the overseer couldn't tell. Nevertheless, they bowed, and that was all he cared about.
The tallest of the three, the black haired boy, cleared his throat. "Sir, we have reported to you as our leader bid, and we will indeed do you as you ask for two days." He spoke politely—using a level of speech the overseer found difficult to understand—and yet the boy's manner was that of a haughty young man.
Then, the small, exotic-looking pink girl spoke up. "Please allow us to repair the field, sir."
Raucous laughter from the overseer surprised the children. "Haha! You ninja are all the same—arrogant as the sun and confident only in your own pathetic skills." He shook his head. "If you are allowed in the fields, it will only be under supervision, and numbskulls such as yourselves will not be allowed near the damaged plants!"
The smallest of the group, a round-faced boy with peculiarly colored hair, sputtered incoherently.
With a swift blow the overseer was unable to follow, the pink-haired girl reprimanded her teammate. A harsh, near-silent whisper went below the man's hearing, but he suspected it was the boy's name.
"The two below me are fools," the first boy began, "but by the honor I carry in my blood and by the words I speak now,"
Unnerved by the boy's single-minded determination and grim tone of voice, the overseer couldn't help but swallow a taunting retort.
The black-haired boy was perhaps the most similar to the villagers' breed, but there was a delicate nature none of the strong-boned mountain men could match. His pale skin marked him as a noble, and his voice carried more of that heritage than the wealthiest lord. "We will honor our contract."
The boy with hair the color of sunflower petals spit out an, "of course!" nevertheless, the irritation—venom, some might call it—was clear in his young voice.
Interestingly, the pink-haired flower seemed not in the least distressed. She merely lowered her head, and strangest of all, looked up to meet the man's gaze.
He was surprised by the intensity of such a small child's eyes, and overwhelmed by the crisp, clear color—the very same shade a tree's first buds took. "You can count on us, sir."
Intrigued despite himself, but unwilling to show homage to the ninja, the overseer feigned disinterest. "Your names?"
Surprisingly, it was not the nobles' son who answered first, but the hot-headed, enigmatic child with the round face. "Uzumaki Naruto!" the boy met his gaze.
More so than the girl's had, these bright orbs surprised the man. He was reminded of looking up into the summer sky, being swallowed by the ocean's unending blue. And that smile...the self-proclaiming, innocently challenging grin spoke falsely to the man's experienced eyes.
Persecution, he read, deep in those cerulean eyes. His lips twitched into a smile. Good. Let the arrogant bastards learn what it's like in the real world!
With a sigh, the second underling spoke up, "Haruno Sakura."
The man bit back a laugh. "A fitting name!" he laughed. "Spring's cherry blossom..." he mused. "And you, brat?" he turned his eyes on the first boy.
Black eyes met his, and the man watched all traces of familiarity with those oriental features fade. Any similarity between the noble-born and the villagers ended with the shade of the boy's hair. Those eyes were framed with long, thick lashes, and elegantly sloped lids—a snake's eyes loomed in the man's subconscious—framed a secret not easily dispelled.
"Uchiha," the boy paused, "Sasuke."
Laughter split the silence once more, but unlike before, it was not the mirth of a superior—it was the awkward noise of a displaced, uncertain man.
Silence soon broke the din.
"So," Sasuke began.
The older man wouldn't allow the child an advantage, and barked, "Yu, get in here," he waved impatiently. "And take these brats to section C."
The wall slid open to reveal a tall, stocky young man, whose hair and eyes were as dull as Sasuke's were bright. "Yes, sir," he mumbled.
"See to it that you teach them the proper techniques for pruning, boy, and make no waste. I'll have no ninja tricks!" he went on, standing before he dismissed the children. "Don't forget your responsibilities."
With that, the young people were spared of the man's presence.
The tiered fields were filled with a mist like the moon's veil.
Around them, the muffled sounds of workers could be heard faintly, and the fragrant smell of flowers perfumed the air. It was soft and sweet, like the inside of the Yamanaka's shop, and filled with a damp sense of cold.
Before them, straight rows of flowers rose on man-made steps, smoothed out after a score of men plowed the mountain's terrain flat. But the grade could not be perfectly straightened, and so each level of flowers was raised after piling soil became too dangerous.
Sakura shivered, and leaned in towards Naruto. She whispered, "what's this place's name?"
Naruto blinked, thinking she was speaking of their guardian, and replied, "I think it's Yu," he grinned, ignorant to Sakura's sudden fluttering of hands and shaking of head, "he's awfully big, huh? I bet he's just a bumbling oaf—"
In front of them, the older youth came to a halt. Yu's sharp ears were well-accustomed to the muffled noise of the mountain, and Naruto's voice was hardly soft.
He turned and scowled at the two. "Unlike you ninja," he began proudly, "we don't judge character by looks alone!" a quick laugh, reminiscent of the overseer, jolted from the boy. "I won't let those shiny pieces of metal fool me, brats, I know you for what you are!
"Trash!" Yu finished, snarling at the three. "You'd never work a day in your life, if you'd have your way." He shook his head. "But you'll see what it's like now, to earn your bread."
Sasuke smiled to himself.
Naruto scowled, and leapt towards the young man. "Hey, we work! Harder work 'n tending a bunch'a flowers, too! You couldn't die doing your—"
"—which just proves it. You ninja—"
Naruto interrupted with a snarl, "—shinobi demand respect, you—"
"—are nothing more than fools! Anyone could die if they threw knives whenever there was a disagreement! Real men know the time to talk, brat, and when fists need to let fly." Yu shook his head, and turned around to look at the blond. He frowned severely, saying, "you shouldn't talk back to your elders, either."
Naruto scrunched his face up and frowned at the older boy. "Hmph!" he grumbled, but offered no resistance to that statement.
Sakura hid a smile behind one hand, and let her eyes wander to Yu's stocky frame.
Behind them, Sasuke closed his eyes, and leisurely filled his pockets with gently curled hands. If anyone had been listening, they might have heard the quiet rebuke forthcoming, but only the wind swallowed those words.
Finally, they stopped at the end of a row, having climbed several garden-type steps to get there. Yu motioned the three forward with a wave of hands.
"Pink and yellow on that side," he said to Sakura and Naruto, "and blackie here'll get these." He grinned momentarily, amused at the thought, before continuing, "now, you don't want to touch the blooming buds, all right? Take the brown, dry ones between your three fingers," he demonstrated, "pinch with your nails, and twist just a bit." The piece of brown fluff fell into his waiting hand.
"And?" Sasuke demanded.
Naruto hid a yawn, thinking to himself, geeze, I know how to weed plants!
Yu smirked. "Take the bloom, and dig a hole a hands' breadth," he looked at the small kids, and coughed, "er, two hands breadths from the stalk of the plant, dig a hole two thumbs deep." He plunged his hand into the rocky soil effortlessly, and dropped the browned thing in.
He pulled something from his sash. "Take a fish head and burry the two. Only two to a hole, got it? If you find more buds, have that one and-a-half thumbs apart...and any greens sprouting up," he plucked a piece of grass, "can be put in with the fish."
The wide grin didn't fade as he motioned for the kids. "You'll need to go back to the main house and get your fish-heads, yeah?"
Naruto's expression fell into one of agitated exasperation. "So you brought us all the way here..." he frowned, "only to make us walk all the way back?"
Yu's smile didn't falter. "Hehheh," he closed his eyes, wet his lips and continued, "you're ninja, aren't you? I thought you liked to do things the hard way."
Naruto's mouth fell open. "Uh," he protested. "Heeeey..."
Sakura stepped on his foot, and over his pained exclamation, she murmured, "oh, it's no problem, sir. We'll have this done in a matter of minutes—"
Soft laughter. "One more thing."
Naruto, Sakura and Sasuke listened with baited breath. Not even the blond stirred, as they waited for the mallet to fall.
Yu's smile smoothed into a twisted line as he spoke, so quiet they had to strain to hear. "The plants here are very sensitive to energy...too much power near their roots, too quick jostling of the soil, and they'll crumple and die."
The wind moaned a quiet protest that no man understood.
"Cover the fish too quickly, and rot will spread," Yu continued slyly, "so you must leave each individual hole open for at least a minute...but have too many open at once, and you'll let the cold touch the root hairs...and we'll have no buds coming." Mirth twinkled in the youth's eyes.
Sakura looked at Sasuke, and he returned the question with a muted sigh and quiet shrug of small shoulders. Neither could say if Yu spoke truly or not...the consequences could be severe if he told correctly.
But what ninja bothers with farmer's lore? How could any of them dispute him?
Sasuke's lips turned down. He's playing us for fools...
Yu's laughter warmed the boy's browned cheeks, and he withdrew a straw hat from his back. Tossing it towards Sakura with a benevolent smile, he purred, "my dear, why don't you put that on? We wouldn't want your fair skin burnt by the sun, hmm?"
Naruto blinked, and wondered aloud, "it's colder up here, so how come you're worried about sun burn?"
Sasuke rolled his eyes.
Yu twirled a bag between two fingers. "Hmm, I dunno, smart-ass." He started to walk down the path, and the soil jostled quietly in his wake. "Maybe it has to do with how much closer we are to the sun?" Laughter split the sentences like so sharp a knife. "Or could it be that the old wives' tales are true after all," the boy drawled, "and we've more to fear from a shaded sun than a brightly shining one..."
His voice drifted into the fog, and the wind carried it kindly to their ears. "...maybe you can tell me, my honorable ninja...maybe you can tell me."
The children exchanged glances, and tenderly made their way back to the main house, careful not to shake the ground as they climbed down the steps.
with their passing.
The wind blew its blessings upon them like a mother's kiss.
The sun beat down on their heads with a father's "loving" cruelty, and the cold soil bit at their fingers.
Eventually, the other workers came by, spreading water or some kind of green-tinged water—Sakura thought it was fertilizer—while talking cheerfully of village things. Sakura twitched each time they spoke.
"—you know those kids, see?" a tall girl brushed at a leaf while tipping a heavy can of water sparingly, "they're ninja, I heard—"
"—the ones who did the..." a harsh giggle and smooth rustling of leaves.
"—wsh! Just like that! Hah, you'd think someone with a head that big'd show a little more, ya know,"
Snickers between the two, and Sakura wished she'd a fish head to spare...I'd chuck it right at the two! She fumed.
From behind them, a voice boomed, raining like so much water on their ears. "You've got thirty minutes to finish up here." The overseer was curt, ill amused. "You're needed to help plant rice, all right?"
The man stomped down the path, and the flowers trembled as he passed.
The mud stuck to their sandals, worming its way between cold toes.
Sasuke was hardly amused, wondering if it was truly necessary for each seed to be buried with a half-rotten fish. His fingers were covered with the insides, sticky with it and spotted with dirt, but not a single, precious seed.
Beside them, booted workers, mostly young men, prodded the moist earth with long rods, leaving the messy work for the three children.
Unlike the younger flower-tenders, the men didn't look at any of the ninja, nor did they discuss them in name. Their stories were of a darker note, but each one was significant, Sasuke found.
The tallest of the group hummed as he worked, an old spring song welcoming the change of seasons, off key and harsh through lack of air. But he listened to his comrades with half an ear. This man, more than the others, commanded respect.
Sasuke found himself regarding the man with grudging admiration as the fog thickened around.
The others turned their minds to serious talk, each farmhand concentrating on the ominous, "—bodies have been found—"
Sasuke breathed in sharply.
A sharp glance at the most dangerous-seeming child-- they're looking at me, Sasuke thought with a cold smirk—and a hushed reply. "...throat slit,"
Sasuke's eyes widened.
"...drained, nothing left" the words floated on the wind, and the sticky earth plllted too loud to catch bits, "skin...bones..." the man's voice quickened, and his breath drew sharp, "—strewn about" a shuddering sigh, "—circle... blood magic."
With a roll of his eyes, Sasuke shook his head.
Sakura looked at him questioningly, a line of worry crossing her sweet face. "Magic," she said steadily, "doesn't exist, right?" she breathed.
Naruto's gaze shifted between the two, and asked in a low voice, "magic's just chakura control, yeah?" his voice begged confirmation.
The two are looking at me, Sasuke realized, and shrugged. "Blood-line limits...hand signals misunderstood by the ignorant," he nodded, "they all look like magic to them."
Naruto's shaky breath came in a long fwwww of frustration.
"—rumors, that's all—"
"—saw the blood, heard the animal's scream—"
The previously singing man cut off the conversation with a raise of his head. "But no people have gone missing." The man's voice was clear.
A quiet murmur, "...but..."
A harsh whisper escaped the attentive ninja's notice, and worried men glanced at the horizon. "—stories of a rogue—"
This time, no eyes turned on the children. The gazes were directed—pointedly—everywhere—anywhere—else. Every now and again, someone would have the misfortune of glimpsing a pale hand, and their eyes would fly away again.
A couple of ninja in a village full of able-bodied young men were not unmatched.
Sakura pulled her hair out of her eyes, not minding the bit of mud smudged among the fine strands. She frowned slightly, unsure of what to say, what to do.
Beside her, Naruto fidgeted a little, not understanding the silence and fearful looks, or simply used to them, Sakura couldn't tell. For a moment, she envied him his naivety, and hoped that the villagers' rumors were nothing more than a plot—set in action by the overseer—to make them uncomfortable.
They moved from one tier to the next, until Sakura's breath came short and labored.
Hours passed, and the sun began to set.
The sun was a memory behind smoky clouds when the man came.
With him, he brought three sleeping mats and blankets, and behind him tread Yu, bearing a basket full of food and drink. Both men struggled under the weight a genin could easily toss from hand to hand.
Sakura smiled, tired, and waved absently to the pair. Behind her, Sasuke and Naruto were still.
Finally, the overseer stopped, tossing the bedrolls to the ground. "I trust this will be enough for you," the opportunity to disagree passed in an instant, "seeing that you're ninja,and accustomed to harsh environments..." he coughed. "The food is yours, but I expect the utensils to be returned by morning."
Yu coughed. "Clean," he mumbled.
The overseer ignored him. "On the morrow, you'll help with the battlements, teach the men defense, and other such fortifications."
Sasuke blinked, and wondered if the man knew what he was saying. "Sir," he began with an elegant lift of an eyebrow, "as Konoha ninja, we're forbidden to teach jutsu--"
His laughter came unexpected, and the air shook. "Children," he said, shaking his head, "we've no use for those energy-expending parlor tricks."
Yu frowned in the dim light.
"Hand-to-hand is basic procedure, yes? Even a child of the ninja villages should know it," the overseer continued, "so it should be easy to teach."
"Hnm," Sasuke allowed, but his expression was far from pleasant.
Sakura sighed. "If you don't mind, sir," she said quietly, "we'd like baths—"
"Denied. You'll only get dirty again in the morning."
Ohhhh, he annoys me... Sakura thought. What a hard man!
Yu chuckled behind his master, but a sharp look quieted him. He put his burden on the earth—none too gently—and retreated, calling a quiet, "good night, kids," as he left.
The overseer left without a word.
The light of the dawn was slow starting, and fast finished.
Soft pinks and peaches were lost in the gray clouds, and waking brought stiff muscles, cold limbs and grumbling stomachs.
Sasuke rustled quietly, and stole into the kitchen to clean up.
He beat the earliest kitchen maid to the sinks, washed their dishes and returned his bedroll—after a thorough beating to dislodge dust—to the main parlor. He was soon followed by Sakura, and Naruto eventually wandered along—just as the house came alive.
The three reported, received the same assignment as the evening's little chat, and were told to assemble in the courtyard.
There were no windows to cover, fortunately or not, as the house was built in the manner of oriental lords and ladies, but fences needed mending, and ladies and children needed places to go, orders to follow.
Sasuke and Naruto were placed in charge of the young men, and Sakura over the noncombatants.
The pink-haired girl barely came up to most of the women's shoulders. She seemed small and frail compared to the mountain-folk, and her pale skin and soft hair marked her as foreign more than an accent or another language could have.
It's not going to be easy... Sakura thought, to get them to trust me.
She offered a tentative smile. "I am Haruno Sakura," she called in a strong voice, "and I am a woman, first. Second, I am a kunoichi," a female shinobi, "of Konoha."
No one answered her.
Sakura, not having expected a reply, thinned her smile. "I'd like to teach you the basics of self defense—" she began, thinking of the overseer's words.
An elderly matron looked up sharply at this unexpected proclamation. "No." she replied, pride in her voice. "We are women, and we will stay to our chosen paths." She looked out among her people, daring them to say otherwise.
Not a word of protest met her words.
"Our men will protect us." The elderly lady stepped down, her eyes downcast even as they burned with determination.
Surprised, Sakura took a step backwards. "Fighting doesn't make you any less of a woman—" she began angrily—
—but in the crowd, not a single face was open to argument.
Sakura sighed. "Fine then." She sniffed. "I'll teach you to make bandages of old cloths..." she racked her mind for information she'd learned in the academy, "...how to cauterize deep wounds, stitch shallow ones, and, um...recognize a festering wound and how to treat it."
A few murmured protests came from the crowd.
One voice, high and nervous, said, "—caught-her-eyes? What? How does that help us with our men?"
"—stitch up wounds? As though they were fabric?" a young voice pulled on her mother's sleeve.
"—I don't want anything to do with injuries, they're—"
"Quiet!" Sakura bid, and pulled absently on her hair. "Do we um, have any, er, cat gut or something of similar make...?"
Slowly, she gathered the materials she'd need, and set herself to a long day of teaching unskilled hands the basics of healthcare, skipping over details like germs and the necessity of cleanliness, and relying on traditional superstition to explain the strangest of patterns.
"—stick the needle through a very hot flame—" the expected, "why" was caught fast, and Sakura moved to explain, "—so it'll enter the skin faster," and so no bad germs will enter the blood, she added silently, "and douse the cat-gut with alcohol to, uh...appease the gods of illness..." ...and hopefully sterilize the dirty stuff...
Sasuke... she thought, biting her lip, I hope your end is easier than this...
The sun streamed down on the group of men and boys.
Awkwardly held swords grasped tight, each man had nearly beheaded his neighbor at least twice by midmorning. Kunai fell from numbed fingers as each sought to hold it like a steak knife, and one man's shoe would have a well-remembered hole in it before that effort was abandoned.
Sasuke stood on an aged crate, demonstrating each parry and block with effortless precision...a perfect imitation of an older Uchiha heir.
Meanwhile, Naruto sought to correct small things in individual men, save one or two from an early grave, and generally keep morale up.
So it was that the blond noticed the grumblings, the quiet grunts of exertion and uneasy stares as only one or two boys—of the entire company—managed to grasp the basics.
"So, uh," Naruto began uneasily, "you guys, er, hunt, huh?" he asked quietly, just as a sword narrowly missed his ear. The boy bent backwards with practiced ease, his torso parallel to the ground as he spoke, "to, um, get fresh meat, maybe?" he asked, coming upwards and correcting the man-who-could-have-cut-Naruto's-throat's grip.
An amused man behind the two laughed. "Of course! There are wild boar around here who would spear wandering brats if we didn't—"
Naruto's smile was quick and sudden. "So what do you use?" he prodded.
From the front, Sasuke's arms stalled as he listened to the words.
"Spears, mostly," the man offered hesitantly, "and sometimes a crossbow..."
Clapping his hands together like the child he was, Naruto laughed aloud. "That's it!" he grinned, estatic. "Put up these ol' swords, guys, 'cept for, um...you, you and that guy in the right corner. Yeah. You." He grinned happily. "Go with Sasuke, and he'll teach you some fancy footwork!"
Beaming at the rest of the men, he sprinted off towards the armory. Moments later, he returned carrying bundles of spears. Nodding quietly to himself, he looked with good graces on the males.
"You're farmers." He grinned easily. "You know how to poke things with this here long stick." He laughed to himself, and tossed one after another to the men, and left one for himself. "I'm going to do a ninjutsu, a ninja technique, okay? I'm gonna split myself up into, uh, four of me, and we'll cover more ground that way, all right?" he hopped on top of the old crate, and appraised his weapon.
The men stared.
Naruto threw the spear in the air, and mumbled, "Kage bunshin no jutsu!" Shadow Clone Technique. In accordance to his will, Naruto's chakura was split into four even portions, and four identical boys moved quickly around the compound so that all men could easily see.
"Show me your stuff!" one Naruto challenged, and the other three laughed quietly.
"Only this time," another went on, running forward.
A third clone ran to intercept the first, and their spears knocked together with a loud kkkkt! "Your opponent's gonna have a weapon—"
A kunai flashed. "—to counter every move you make."
Naruto grinned. "So I'm gonna teach you to parry, but with a spear, and I'll teach you to thrust with greater precision, and how to keep your eye on a moving enemy." He laughed easily, and tossed a kunai into the air, only to catch it between his teeth.
"I'll teach you group work!" the last clone shouted.
"...if you'll listen," the first added quietly.
Mouths dropped, and boys smiled.
Slowly, Naruto began to teach.
Off to the side, Sasuke laughed. "Dead last..." he mumbled, "you might have something to that idea..." he shrugged simply, "but we'll be the ones to protect the others in case his 'tactics' fail, hm?" he raised an eyebrow at the quicker learners.
Each young man felt a cold chill enter his body as Sasuke explained in patient, cool breaths exactly what kind of 'magic' they'd have to come up against. Their time was short, their patience thin, but their teacher was harsh and unrelenting. They had progressed rapidly, but not fast enough...
Sasuke was the first one to notice...and stalled everyone's activities with a shout.
It was noon when the rogue-ninja attacked.
Sakura dreamt of blood, screams and panicked voices.
Her fingers were wet with the red liquid, her ears filled with the screams of the injured, the dying, and she wondered to herself, why?
When her eyes finally snapped open, the sea green was met only by darkened wood, and the moans of the injured were muted, not pleading.
"Sasuke!" she breathed, and looked immediately to her side.
He lay, nearly motionless, breathing shallow as the so-called bruise fought its constraints, its inky flames licking at Kakashi's seal. He'd nearly lost control, Sakura was uneasy to remember, and his hands had closed around a rogue-nin's throat—
—Sakura shook the image from her head, and retrieved water to bathe her teammates' foreheads.
"Sakura," the smoky voice was unexpected in the dark room, but Sakura recognized it in an instant.
"Kakashi-sensei..." she mumbled, and tears came to her eyes. "Why didn't you help?" she demanded, before reason caught up with her. She threw small white hands over her mouth, and trembled quietly. "You...did," she realized. "I remember...anbu...?"
The gray-haired man nodded. "Yes." He replied. "I would have returned earlier..." he shifted, "but there was a...situation...going down the mountain."
He favors his left hand... Sakura realized, and he's limping... her green eyes swept over the man. He seems tired. Connections formed. He must have used the sharingan.
Sakura rose, and moved towards the main house.
Kakashi lifted one hand, as if to bid her pause, but his voice didn't call out.
"I'm going." Sakura mumbled, "to help the girls...they need me."
The remainder of her day would be spent mopping the sweat from fevered brows, stitching wounds and cleansing inflamed spots. She sighed, and wished luck upon whoever dug the graves.
On the windowsill, a single rose lay.
Naruto's dreams were filled with screaming children.
Maniacal laughter filled his ears, and a name fled his mouth as he opened cerulean eyes wide.
His eyes swept over the room, and he stilled any trembling before sitting up. He scanned the beds around him until he saw the peculiar fall of smooth, black hair, and breathed a sigh of relief.
"...bastard..." he mumbled. Slowly, he got up from the bed.
A large hand covered his shoulder.
Naruto spun around quickly, a kunai pulled and pressed towards the assailant's throat—
—only to have his weapon knocked harmlessly aside.
...shit... Naruto thought, despair filling his heart.
The blond blinked. "...sen...sei?" he turned around slowly.
A tired face greeted his eyes, and the boy leapt into the older man's arms. "You're alive!"
Kakashi chuckled, saying, "of course I am," while the boy sputtered inaudible mutterings of good will.
As abruptly as he began, Naruto cut himself off with a hesitant smile, mumbling, "I'm gonna go help the guys...pick up..." he pressed his lips together. "Someone told me the fighting spread into the higher terraces, the steps with the baby rice-stalks, and I'm gonna see if I can get the blood outta the water-supply..." He swallowed, and left. "And, um, I'm sure there's a few families needing some peace..."
As he did so, he wished whoever had to deal with the living luck.
He never could stand their screaming.
Sasuke's dreams were not of the present, but of the past.
Dark colors, splashes of red on white, and white on black, filled his vision. Words filled his ears, and smooth laughter pulled him to the world of the waking.
Sasuke found his bearings in an instant, recognizing everyone in the room with the fluttering of his long lashes. "Kakashi." He greeted. "Where are the others?"
Kakashi shrugged lazily. "They...were...assisting the villagers." He began, and paused.
Sasuke nodded curtly, having expected a similar answer. "When do we leave?"
The evening air was heavy on the jounin's shoulders. He felt as if he carried the weight of the world. "In the morning," he admitted, pushing free a ninja knapsack.
Sasuke snorted. "We have orders to depart at nightfall."
Kakashi's single visible moved slowly to take in his student, and not a single word was spoken.
Sasuke... Kakashi thought. Aren't you going to help them?
But when Sasuke left the infirmary, he moved neither to the sickbeds nor the fields.
Sasuke trained under the moon's blue light, reflecting quietly on what the day had taught him...what techniques killed swiftly and which ones were dangerous to all around.
The breathing of a certain Sasuke, dark haired and dark eyed, was short and labored, until even his harsh-lived body demanded rest.
He took no notice of the falling petals on the cruel wind's back.
He didn't see the bloody water,
and he heard nothing
of the poor souls' weeping.
Morning brought much weeping.
Each child carried with themselves a tiny portion of the mountain village's heart. Not quite satisfied, not quite discontented, the children pondered, as their feet echoed on hard earth, what the two days had taught them.
None could come to clear answers, and so it was that the quick event was pushed—buried—behind more prominent issues.
As they made their way into Konoha, a
petal floated down,
-streaked, and full.
The sun hid her face, and the wind left them be.